JERUSALEM Deadlocked talks with potential coalition partners have forced Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to seek more time to build a new government and avert a possible snap election, officials said on Friday.
They said Netanyahu would meet President Shimon Peres on Saturday to ask for a two-week extension after his right-wing party, the narrow victor in Israel's January 22 ballot, exhausted the standard four weeks allotted to build a coalition.
Peres is expected to accept Netanyahu's request.
However, should the rightist premier fail to win enough allies for a parliamentary majority by March 16, the president could hand the task to a rival party leader. If no government emerged then, Israelis may have to return to the polls.
U.S. President Barack Obama is due to visit Israel at the end of March.
Netanyahu's trouble building a new government raises the question of whether he may call off that visit. But when asked about Israeli reports he might cancel, an official in Washington, speaking on condition of anonymity, said there was no talk at this point about the possibility of scrubbing the trip.
White House spokeswoman Bernadette Meehan said: "President Obama looks forward to travelling to Jerusalem, Ramallah and Amman later this month."
Netanyahu's Likud-Beitenu ticket won 31 of the Knesset's 120 seats in the January vote - an eroded lead that required he cast a wide net for partners while juggling their disparate demands.
He has faced strong demands from the parties that placed second and fourth, Yesh Atid (There is a Future) and Bayit Yehudi (Jewish Home), to cut back mass exemptions from military conscription and welfare stipends to ultra-Orthodox Jews.
David Shimron, Likud Beitenu's negotiator, said before meeting Bayit Yehudi on Friday that Yesh Atid was "ruling out" sitting in government with the ultra-Orthodox. Yesh Atid has not disputed that characterization.
"We need to clarify this and other matters with Bayit Yehudi," Shimron told reporters. "In the end of the day, we have to build a government, and we do not accept the invalidation of a sector that is part of the Israeli people."
Netanyahu's outgoing coalition includes two ultra-Orthodox parties which have generally backed him on other policies such the settlement of occupied West Bank land in defiance of world powers, who support the Palestinians' drive for statehood there.
Bayit Yehudi is even less accommodating of the Palestinians than Netanyahu, who says he wants to revive stalled peace talks. By contrast, Yesh Atid says Israeli diplomacy is too listless.
(Additional reporting by Matt Spetalnick in Washington; Writing by Dan Williams; Editing by Crispian Balmer and Michael Roddy)